Hilary Hahn — Image via imgartists.com

Hilary Hahn at the Ordway

With Cory Smythe, Piano

Emerging from violinist Hilary Hahn’s Schubert Club appearance Wednesday with pianist Cory Smythe, my first thought was that this was exactly what a recital should be. The program featured pieces from four centuries, all with their own unique characteristics, but they were forged into a coherent whole through creative programming and the performers’ distinctive personalities. It was an absorbing concert, full of insight and an infectious sense of pleasure in making music.

The program began with John Cage’s Six Melodies. Surprisingly, this was Cage’s first appearance on the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series. Granted, he is a composer more often talked about than heard (or, in the case of his famous 4’33”, not heard), but still, you would think he would have shown up once or twice. This piece consisted of a series of rhythmic and melodic cells played at different speeds and configurations over the course of six short movements. It sounds very dry and abstract, but in Hahn and Smythe’s hands the music’s wistful side came to life. Following the Cage came David Lang’s light moving — one of the 27 short encores Hahn commissioned a few years back for her In 27 Pieces project — which shared some of its predecessor’s delicacy but with a more propulsive approach echoing the minimalism of Glass and Reich.

The concert’s first half closed with J.S. Bach’s famous solo violin Partita No. 3. Again, there was some continuity with the previous piece in the form of Bach’s perpetual-motion Preludio, which Hahn dashed off seemingly effortlessly, with an exceptional sense of line and dynamic shading. These characteristics also carried over into the slow Loure movement. I will admit that the courtlier dances are a tougher nut to crack for me, but Hahn handled them well and ratcheted the excitement back up in the buoyant closing Giga. The Bach drew the most thunderous applause of the evening, and rightfully so; it was definitely a fresh take.

Cory Smythe — Image via corysmythe.comClaude Debussy’s Violin Sonata is not his most famous piece, but it’s one of his best. It was a strong opener for the program’s second half and a good showcase for Smythe’s talents, especially in the exotic twists and turns of the first movement. Hahn and Smythe maintained a light touch in the halting, enigmatic middle movement, then brought things home with a suspenseful take on the finale. Following the Debussy came another of the In 27 Pieces commissions, Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory, which turned out to be another study in tension and release.

The program concluded with Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, which both continued the tension and brought the concert full circle with parallels to the Cage. Schumann’s late works are often referred to as “obsessive,” which may seem like an effort to retroactively pathologize the work of a composer who was soon to attempt suicide, but it is also a fairly accurate way to describe the way fleeting bits of melody and rhythm keep coming back — as they do in Cage’s piece. Hahn and Smythe took an uncompromising approach to the claustrophobic piece, especially shining in its syncopated dance of a finale.

Having already incorporated two encores into the body of the program, Hahn and Smythe only performed one in the usual location, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Copelandesque Hilary’s Hoedown. It was a lighthearted end to one of the most appealing recitals I’ve attended in a while, one that was clearly a hit with the audience and undoubtedly whetted appetites for Hahn’s planned 2016 appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.